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Friday, April 18, 2014

Irish Patriot John Boyle O'Reilly Helped Form the Boston Athletic Association in 1887

John Boyle O’Reilly (1844-90), known in Boston as an Irish patriot, poet, orator and spokesman for the downtrodden, was one of the founders of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), in 1887. 

In January, 1887, “at the suggestion of the late John Boyle O’Reilly, the first meeting was formed to consider…forming an athletic club in Boston,” wrote The Boston Globe in a March 9, 1912 story on the BAA’s 25th anniversary.  That initial meeting generated excitement and resolve to create an athletic organization, modeled on the popular New York Athletic Club, according to reports.

A few months later, on May 9, 1887, the General Court of Massachusetts passed an act to incorporate the BAA, listing O’Reilly as an official, along with other leading Bostonians like Henry Parkman, George Morrison, George W. Beales, Francis L. Higginson, Richard D. Sears and Harrison G. Otis.

The first meeting of the BAA took place on June 14, 1887 at the Boston Cadet Armory.  The full membership of 1,200 was already enrolled by the time the first meeting took place, wrote the Globe.

A new book by John Hanc, entitled the B.A.A. at 125 recounts the formation of the group and gives a synopsis of O'Reilly's life and his involvement in the forming the city's most famous athletic organization.

The BAA helped field the first US Olympic team that competed in Athens, Greece in 1896, and also started the Boston Marathon in 1897, a race it oversees to this day.

O’Reilly is best known as a leader of Boston’s Irish community; in his day he was well-regarded as a sportsman, intellectual, and community activist.  He had escaped a life imprisonment from a British penal colony in Australia by hopping on a whaling ship out of New Bedford, MA, and he arrived in Boston  in 1870, where he lived until his death in 1844 from an accidental overdose of medication at age 44.

O'Reilly was an active outdoors man, and taught fencing for a time at Harvard University.  His book, Ethics of Boxing and Manly Sport, published in 1888, defended the controversial sport of boxing, but also delved into other topics like Irish hurling, canoeing, and hints for fitness and nutrition for the serious athlete. 

Today, a memorial to John Boyle O'Reilly is located in the Fens at the top of Boylston Street. 

Find about more about Boston Irish history by visiting